The Culture of Gift Giving in Japan
By Peter Van Buren
Gift giving in Japan is deeply rooted in tradition with gifts given not only for social occasions, but also for social obligations – gifts given when indebted to others, both family and business. The emphasis is on the act of giving rather than the gift itself. The value of the gift is of less importance than the presentation and thoughtfulness in which it is presented.
There are shelves of books in Japan on gift giving and especially on determining an appropriate gift. The best thing to do is ask for help – a Japanese coworker, business partner or, in a pinch, a salesperson at a nice department store. Too cheap and you look, well, cheap. Too expensive and it may embarrass the receiver and place a lot of stress on him/ her for the reciprocity requirement, as gifts in Japan are always exchanged, never given per se.
If the gift is tied to a holiday or event (such as a wedding) there are usually clear guidelines. Ask. If the gift is for a business relationship, the rules are a bit fuzzier, but a local food, wine from near your home, items from sports teams (especially if they have a Japanese player), golf balls, all are pretty safe bets. The receiver may not care much about sports and may never have been golfing in her life, but it is the gesture that really matters.
Some older Japanese will not be happy with gifts that come in fours, such as four boxes of tea. The Japanese word for the number four (shi) can be pronounced the same way as the word for death, and so old superstitions can come into play.
Caution – some business situations can call for expensive gifts, such as the sealing of a deal. Get some advice is always the best idea. Someone on the Japanese side will be very happy to learn you are sorting out anything that might spoil the occasion in advance.
Gifts must be wrapped. Read it again, and then once more.
Unless you’re handing over flowers (ask the florist, as some colors and plants are used only for funerals), it must be wrapped, and wrapped correctly (colors are very important.) Buy from a large, classy department store, tell them it is a gift and describe the situation, and throw yourself on their mercy. It will work.
Gifts are rarely opened in front of the giver, to avoid embarrassment right then and there to either party. With more conservative and/or older Japanese, the gift will be received, thanked for, and then disappear from sight unopened.
Reciprocity is a final key part of Japanese gift giving culture. With very, very few exceptions, a gift must always be reciprocated. Here again, the rules can be tricky; typically in business settings gifts of equal value and type are best to exchange. For weddings and funerals, the return gift is often more symbolic than anything else. For example, for some reason truly unknown, mourners at funerals were for a long time given a gift box of hand towels. Gifts of money are almost never reciprocated by giving money; it seems like you are offering some sort of refund.
Many times more symbolic gifts, especially on more casual occasion, are repaid with gift cards. It used to be that there were only cards for beer and books, but nowadays, as in the West, there is a gift card for anything. If you expect the relationship to be a long one, or if you gave something for a wedding and have a kid of your own that may marry, records of what things are exchanged are kept. It is polite to thank the giver when you meet again, and you want to not embarrass yourself by going too low on a future gift or too high. Regifting has been known to occur, and you never want to mess that up. Write it down; your Japanese friends do.
4. Magic Phrases
Even if you don’t speak Japanese, it will be seen as very polite to give some gift giving phrases a try. If you don’t speak Japanese, say them in English anyway.
Tsumaranai mono desu ga is a key phrase. It literally means “this is a boring thing,” but is fully understood to mean that you are being humble, and expressing modesty. People say it no matter what the value involved, even if you are handing over an original Da Vinci.
However, in some corporate settings, honno o shirushi de gozai masu ga, this is a token of my appreciation, is used.
And obviously, lots of thankyou’s are exchanged. With some older people, you can go multiple rounds of thank-you/you’re welcome until someone fades out.
Remember, gifts are handed over and received with two hands. Before accepting a gift, especially for women, it is polite to refuse at least once or twice before accepting. The timing of presentation is important. It can be seen as rude to give a gift at the beginning of an interaction. This gesture will be viewed as rushing the relationship or meeting.
Standard Gift Situations
Here are several gift giving occasions in Japan and a guide to the proper etiquettes and mannerisms for each of them.
If you take a trip while living in Japan, say, visiting Kyoto over a long weekend, you are expected to bring back to your colleagues, staff, friends, neighbors and the like omiyage, small souvenirs.
In Japan, each prefecture has its very own local product that can be purchased as an omiyage present. Omiyage could be an edible or collectible item such as a traditional or local hand craft. The purpose is to bring back an item that is only available at the place that you travelled to or is specific to that place. Hopefully by giving the item, the recipient of the omiyage will have the opportunity to share an authentic experience from your trip.
2. Ochugen and Oseibo
Twice a year, in June and December, it is common for co-workers, friends, and relatives to exchange gifts. The unofficial gifting holidays are called Ochugen and Oseibo.
Ochugen falls around the 15th of July. It originated as an offering to families who had a death in the first half of the year and still takes place two weeks before Obon, the Japanese holiday for honoring the dead. Nowadays, gifts are given as a gesture of gratitude to the people who are close to them. Bosses, colleagues, parents and relatives are common recipients. Edible products can be considered as a great Ochugen. In general, the popular products that have been selected as the Ochugen are produced by the local factory or local production agency and can be delivered directly from the factory to the recipient of the Ochugen. The price for Ochugen might vary from a minimum of 2000¥ to 5000¥ and can go higher.
If an Ochugen is considered as a mid-year tradition, then the Oseibo is the year-end gift-giving tradition. The Oseibo gift giving period begins from 20th of December every year. Any edible product or beverage maybe used for an Oseibo, the only difference will be the Noshi. The characters of Oseibo in Kanji should be written at the top section of the Noshi that is being used for an Oseibo. Oseibo is usually given to people at the work place, and any other person who has had a significant influence for taking care of you during the year.
Young people are abandoning the traditions of Ochugen and Oseibo in droves, so consider the age of the person you are considering sending things to.
At the beginning of a newyear starting from the 1st until the 3rd of January, all adults in Japan will give a certain amount of money to the children or their younger ones as a gift. This gift-giving tradition is called Otoshidama, and is usually given whenever the elders visit friends or relatives’ houses with children. It should be noted here that giving coin is strictly unacceptable, only bank notes are allowed for Otoshidama. The bank note should be folded three times and then put it inside a special Otoshidama envelope that come in a wide variety of colourful and cute pictures.
The minimum amount of money for Otoshidama should be 1000¥. It also depends on the age of the recipient, the eldest child generally receives the highest amount of money but nowadays all the children get the same amount of money for Otoshidama to avoid any issues between siblings. According to Kumon children research institute in Japan, the elementary school students in Japan could collect an average of up to 5000¥ while the junior high students and high school students could collect an average of 10000¥!!
Gifts to Avoid
Lilies, lotus blossoms, and camellias are associated with funerals. White flowers of any kind are gifts to be avoided. There is also a superstition that potted plants encourage sickness.
Giving four or nine of anything is considered unlucky. This superstition seems to be less important nowadays.
Red Christmas cards should be avoided, since funeral notices are customarily printed in this color.
I am not saying that every single of us should follow all the rules and complex etiquette of the gift giving tradition in Japan. Your fellow Japanese friends might not really take it seriously but they might be impressed with your efforts to respect their culture and they will most likely appreciate your present even more.